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Iranian intellectuals: From revolution to dissent

Mon, 10/15/2012 - 21:54 -- razinadmin
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By: Ramin Jahanbegloo

During the past 30 years Iranian revolution has attracted a great deal of attention among scholars and intellectuals around the world, as well as interests among policymakers and journalists. Perceived by many as a revolt against the secular modernity of the West, Iranian revolution was welcomed by some Western thinkers as a triumph of spiritual values over the profane world of capitalist materialism. For others the Iranian revolution was a protest against the very political rationality of the modern era. Strangely enough, for many despite the political violence into which it had escalated, the Iranian revolution could be seen as a sign of progress towards modern emancipation and freedom. Although the concept of freedom was the visible centre of gravity of the Iranian revolution, however, it remained invisible, since the idea itself was hardly ever institutionalized in the Iranian political system. On the contrary, the ideological system of the Islamic regime was intentionally designed to institutionalize the involvement and dominance of Islamic clergies on all aspects of the political process and government functioning.

It is a common place that every revolution destroys traditional value systems, for revolutions are interruptions of the social, political, economic and cultural evolution of a society. In the case of the Iranian revolution, we witnessed the re-establishment of a traditional value system, with religion as a source of authority. In other words, unlike many other revolutions, the Iranian revolution as a pure act of beginning included the very principle of tradition. The 1979 Iranian revolution was the ultimate victory of the traditional forces over the modernizers, as the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was a major victory for the modernizers, who succeeded to install a system which recognized the rule of law.

   When the revolutionary movement started in 1978 and the Shia clergy appeared as its central force, it was hard to find any intellectual who doubted the anti-intellectualism, anti-modern and anti-Western attitude of the Iranian revolution. Even those who were at some point close to the Shah’s regime (either as university professors or public servants) found themselves attracted by the revolutionary wave. That is the reason why the Iranian revolution was not accompanied with an intrinsically critical nature among the Iranian intellectuals which would impel them to speak the truth to power. As a result of this, Iranian intellectuals entered the first period of the revolution as weak and subordinate allies of the Islamist forces.

One can distinguish in 1979 two main groups of intellectuals in the revolutionary Iran: one the one side, there were those who supported the Iranian revolution, and on the other side, there were those who were victims of it.  The less radical and less political intellectuals who had adopted a much more democratic and tolerant discourse in the early 1980s because of their liberal views (people such as Mostafa Rahimi and Shahrokh Meskoob) or were listed as the followers and courtesans of the Shah’s regime (such as Daryush Shayegan and Jamchid Behnam) were among the first to be expelled from the political, social and cultural spheres. Most of them had to face either a cultural persecution or to leave Iran for exile in the European capitals such as Paris, London etc. Practically all these non-revolutionary intellectuals had to face a public sphere dominated by an anti-intellectual and ideological discourses and controlled by Islamic and Marxist-Leninist slogans. They also had to face the emergence in the early 1990s in Iran of those who came to be known as the “religious intellectuals” as their cultural and political rivals. More than 15 years after the creation of the Islamic Republic, the religious intellectuals became the architects of the reform movement in the Iranian presidential elections of 1997.

On May 23rd, 1997, Seyyed Muhammad Khatami swept to victory in the Presidential elections in Iran, winning nearly 70% of the popular vote. A reformist, Khatami promised increased economic opportunities for Iran’s youth, social justice, individual freedoms, political tolerance, greater rights for women and the rule of law. The Iranian youth, most of whom had not been born at the time of the revolution, were looking for answers to most of the socioeconomic problems they faced. Khatami stressed the importance of good governance over revolutionary ideology and advocated investment in job-generating projects. He called for ‘change in the educational system and reiterated his commitment to civil liberties, arguing that all Iranians should enjoy “security and freedom within their private life.”  The greatest obstacle for Khatami was that the Presidency was only one of many centers of power established in the Iranian constitution. The election of Mohammad Khatami initiated a new phase in the evolution of the power struggle in the Islamic Republic of Iran. When Khatami won the presidency in 1997 the clerical establishment tried to portray it as a great victory for the clergy, one that reaffirmed the people’s faith in their leadership. Khamenei called Khatami’s election a “referendum of the Iranian nation and an act of reiteration of the people’s loyalty to Islam, the clergy and the religious system of government".

For eight years, after the landslide victory of Khatami in 1997, the ruling clergy continued to resist the establishment of a political platform for debate and rational discourse and the question remained whether Khatami’s presidency had been an utter failure and therefore a mere footnote in the evolution of Iran’s Islamic Revolution? What is certain is that Khatami’s landslide election in 1997 was a positive step in transition to popular sovereignty. The enthusiastic participation of a new generation of voters in 1997 increased the pressures for political pluralism. Iran’s youth, many previously too young to vote or alienated from the political system, made up a large part of the 20 million who gave Khatami his surprise victory. They were joined by unprecedented numbers of women. Both groups perceived Khatami to be an agent for change. That they believed they could achieve change by means of the exiting political system speaks well for the exiting contradictions inside the Iranian political system. As for Khatami, he used Islamic vernacular and nationalistic symbols, to articulate a new discourse of governance in Iran based on popular sovereignty. It can hardly be contested that Khatami’s election and his eight years of presidency had popularized the discourse of democracy in Iran and opened once again the debate about democratization in Iran. However, the main issue in this debate, was less the transition to some kind of multiparty democracy than the consolidation of Iranian civil society and the improvement of civil liberties. The genie of democratization was certainly out of the bottle and could not be forced back into it. Yet the struggle of the reformists for eight years showed that the institutional configuration and the fractionalized nature of Iranian politics did not allow quick reforms. Yet the fact remained that , since Khatami’s election, a new political discourse gained currency whose main themes were: the rule of law, tolerance versus violence, inclusivism versus exclusivism and the need to move towards a civil society. Also the political opening via electoral politics increased the integrative capacity of the Islamic political system and enhanced the regime’s survivability. Of course, since Khatami presented himself as a supporter of people’s sovereignty (Mardomsalari) and not necessarily an advocate of the Iranian civil society, he never spelled out clearly the development of civil society against the arbitrary political powers such as the myriad of courts that in many cases over the eight years of his presidency stifled public debate, freedom of the press and cracked down on dissident intellectuals. While the reform movement which started with the 1997 elections that brought Mohammad Khatami to power did not fully achieve any of its engagements, it however produced one big change in the way politics was practiced in the Islamic Republic of Iran: elections became the most important place where the struggle for power had to occur. It was for stopping the expansion of the electorate process as the centre of Iran’s political system and thus preventing it from becoming the primary tool for the creation of political authority that the conservative forces opposed fiercely the reform movement and finally reached their aim of annihilating it.

Despite all the uncertainties and challenges during the Khatami years, journalists, intellectuals and artists found a greater place and presence in the Iranian public sphere. The activities of most of the influential reformist newspapers in the late 1990s (which reached circulation of more than a million), such as Salaam, Jame'eh, Tous, Khordad, Sobh-e emrouz, Neshat, Mosharekat, Asr-e Azadegan and Bahar, depended on the role and presence of these intellectuals.  In the broad sense of the term, religious intellectuals were considered as all those individuals (cleric or non-cleric) who were interested in the ideas of Iranian Moslem thinkers and politicians such as Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Morteza Mottahari. No need to add that while criticizing the conservative wing of the regime, most of the “religious intellectuals” like Mojtahed Shabestari, Hamidreza Jalaeipour, Abdlkarim Soroosh, Alavi-Tabar, or Mohammad Khatami and many others supported fully the Revolution and never denied clearly their past affiliations with the Islamic regime as either members of the Council of the Cultural Revolution or as members of the Revolutionary Guards and the Security Forces. Among these, Mohsen Kadivar was the only one who spent a year and a half in prison for doubting the velayat faqih, the rule of Islamic jurists, as it was conceived by Ayatollah Khomeini.

If we go back to the first years of the Iranian Revolution, we can say that the key question for a historian of contemporary Iran is: why did most of the Iranian intellectuals align themselves with the forces of the Revolution while others remained silent? The answer resides certainly in the absence of “ethical responsibility” among those that we can name as the “revolutionary intellectuals” in Iran. These intellectuals supported the revolution for two reasons. Firstly, because of the seduction of the concept of “revolution” and what surrounded it. This was accompanied by a sense of “ utopian idealism” and deep attitude of “political romanticism” which was very common in the1960s and 1970s among the Leftist intellectuals in Iran. However, the revolutionary quest of the leftist intellectuals in Iran was characterized by a series of political strategic and philosophical shortcomings. In other words, their ideological preoccupations with the cultural and political dimensions of the Iranian reality was accompanied by a lack of coherent and systematic analysis of the Iranian history and of the Western philosophical heritage. Many of these ideological attitudes are reflected in the leftist intellectual literature of the late 1970s and early 1980s. These works written mainly to convey a revolutionary message based on a process of utopian thinking rather than to serve the cause of critical thinking as the paradigmatic element of intellectual modernity. Secondly, many among the pro- revolutionary intellectuals strived to defend new strategic positions in the new revolutionary society of Iran. For some of them intellectual purges at the level of universities and government offices made room for new faces and new ways of thinking. Unfortunately, as time went by only those who were close to the regime and presented no danger for it could find a solid place inside the institutions controlled by the government. Thousands of Leftist scholars and students were expelled from universities during Iran's Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s. As a result of this, the same revolutionary intellectuals who supported the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in the name of anti-Westernization, anti-imperialism and struggle against Iranian capitalists were considered as the enemies of Islam and dangerous elements for the future of the Islamic regime in Iran. Many of these Leftists intellectuals had to flee for their lives abandoning behind them the Revolution and the hope to see one day a socialist Iran. Others who stayed in Iran had to go through imprisonment and death and found themselves, not only disenchanted and disillusioned by the political defeat of the Left in Iran but also betrayed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, those among the Islamic revolutionary intellectuals who remained faithful to the Islamic regime adopted an instrumentalist view of Islam as a mobilizing political ideology and tried to bridge the gap created by the modern institutions during the Pahlavi regime between intellectuals and clergy. This philosophical-political attitude, which could be called as the “Al-Ahmad syndrome”, could be considered as the first anti-intellectual discourse elaborated by a modern intellectual in Iran. Son of a Shi'ite clergyman, Jalal Al Ahmad was born in 1923 in Tehran. As a young man, he was actively involved in the Tudeh Party, especially between 1944 and 1948 before the Party was forced underground by the Pahlavi regime. Between 1951 and 1953, Al Ahmad supported the nationalist government of Muhammad Musadeq. After the fall of Musadeq, however, he served as the unofficial spokesperson for the 1950s and 1960s dissident intelligentsia. As such he wrote short stories, novels, and essays and in the strongest critical format possible criticized the regime of the Shah. Best known for his polemical essay, Occidentosis (Gharbzadagi), Al-Ahmad influenced Iran’s contemporary socio-cultural debates by presenting the Iranian intellectuals of his time as traitors who wished to be the tool of the democratization process in Iran as did their Western intellectual role models, but since they lived in an undemocratic state (the Shah’s), they served the censorship system. Even if Al-Ahmad did not live long enough to see the outcome of his intellectual radicalism in Iran, but nevertheless, he was recognized by the Islamic Republic as the prototype of an Iranian “intellectual engage” who had helped the process of the Revolution.

While the revolutionary intellectuals had failed to present alternative narratives and alternative perspectives on politics to the dominant discourse of the Iranian revolution, because they failed to construct fields of social existence, the  “religious intellectuals” of the 1990s tried to reconsider and rethink under a  new perspective the old clash between modernity and tradition. Today the religious intellectuals are divided into two diverse groups in Iran: on the one side, we find the reformists and on the other side the neo-conservatives.

The reformist group is represented by figures such as Abdolkarim Soroosh, Mohsen Kadivar, Alavi-Tabar, Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, Mojtahed Shabestari, and many others. The unifying traits of these intellectuals include their recognition of reform in the Islamic thought, democracy, civil society and religious pluralism and their opposition to the absolute supremacy of the Faqih. The rise of religious intellectuals can be followed through the writings of Soroosh. Soroosh’s main idea is that there are perennial unchanging religious truths, but our understanding of them remains contingent on our knowledge in the fields of science and philosophy. Unlike Ali Shariati, who turned to Marxism to bring a historicist perspective to the Shiite thought, Soroosh debates the relation between democracy and religion and discusses the possibility of what he calls “Islamic democracy”.  According to Abdolkarim Soroosh ,who's now living in England, the role of the philosopher,  is to try to reconcile religion and freedom, to give an understandable new definition of religion and to link democracy and religion. What Soroosh has been trying to do during the past decade is convince his fellow citizens that it is possible to be Muslim and to believe in democracy. Soroosh stresses that there were two views of religion, a maximalist and a minimalist one.  In the maximalist view, according to him, everything has to be derived from religion, and most of the current problems in Islam come from this view. But the minimalist view implies that some values cannot be derived from religion, like respect for human rights. For Soroosh the maximalist view of religion has to be replaced by a minimalist view, other wise the balance between Islam and democracy would not be possible. Therefore, for Soroosh a democratic Islamic society would not need any Islamic norms from above.

Mojtahed Shabestari,  is among the rare religious intellectuals in Iran who has challenged the monistic view of Islam. According to Shabestari, the official Islamic discourse in Iran has created a double crisis. The first crisis is due to the belief that Islam encompasses a political and economic system offering an answer relevant to all the historical periods; the second crisis is entailed by the conviction that the government has to apply Islamic law (shariah) as such. These two ideas have emerged, according to Shabestari, in relation to the Islamic revolution and the events that followed it.  But the fact is, according to Shabestari, that Islam does not have all the answers to social, economic and political life at all times in history.  Also, there is no single hermeneutics of Islam as such. Therefore, the relation between religion and ideology is simply unacceptable and leads to the desacralization of religion.

Unlike the reformist intellectuals, the neo- conservative intellectuals in Iran are in favor of the supremacy of the Supreme Guide (the Faqih) and against concepts such as democracy, civil society and pluralism. This movement includes figures such as Reza Davari Ardakani, Qolam-Ali Haddad Adel, and Mehdi Golshani. The famous personality among these is Reza Davari- Ardakani, who as an anti- Western philosopher is very familiar with the works of Martin Heidegger. Davari-Ardakani, unlike Soroosh, takes some of the features of Heidegger’s thought, mainly his critic of modernity and puts it into an Islamic wording. He rejects the Western model of democracy, which is based on the separation of politics and religion. President of the Iranian Academy of Science, Reza Davari-Ardakani could be considered as the philosophical spokesman of the Islamic regime.

This is to say that for the past thirty years the Iranian intellectual arena has been left in between two dominant intellectual trends: on the one hand, an intellectual wave critic of modernity and democracy and in favor of a pure return to the Iranian- Islamic traditions, and on the other hand a softer trend which emerged in the 1990s among the Islamic followers of the Revolution looking for an Islamic answer to the problems of modernity and democracy.

It is a fact, the reformist and neo-conservative intellectuals do not dominate the entire Iranian public sphere. Next to them, one can consider a new generation of Iranian intellectuals who do not attempt to promulgate any ideologies or to struggle for the establishment of an Islamic democracy in Iran and yet they undermine the main philosophical and intellectual concepts of the established order.  This generation is mainly characterized by the secular post-revolutionary intellectuals, such as Javad Tabatabai, Babak Ahmadi, Hamid Azodanloo, Moosa Ghaninejad, Nasser Fakouhi and Fatemeh Sadeghi, who are in their forties and fifties, and who can be referred to as the “dialogical intellectuals” (in contrast with the revolutionary intellectuals of the 1970s and early 1980s). In other words, for this new generation of Iranian intellectuals, the concept and the practice of dialogue provide an ontological umbrella for all the political and cultural meanings and understandings. The very objective of this “culture of dialogue” is no more to consider the other as an “enemy” (who needs to be terminated as an individual or as asocial c1ass), but to promote a full acknowledgement of the other as a subject. In this case different intellectual attitudes are asked to co-exist side by side to find an intersubjective basis for their search of modernity and democracy. This move away from master ideologies among this new generation of Iranian intellectuals is echoed by a distrust in any metaphysically valorized form of monist thinking. Unlike the previous generations of Iranian intel1ectuals, what the critica1 thinking of modernity has taught the new generation is to adopt a general attitude that consists of being at odds both with “fundamentalist politics” and with “utopian rationalities”. This philosophical wariness is not joined to any kind of dream of rearranging totally the Iranian society. The intervention here is not only a reflection upon the pluralistic mechanisms of politics, but also upon the political self. This issue of value-pluralism also raises the question of the West as the “other” in the context of modernizing projects. As an antidote to the “monolithic” and “one-view” formulas of the previous generations, the political and intellectual urgency of Iran's encounter with the globalized modernity acquires a “dialogical and cross-cultural exchange”. This dialogue is an exposure of the Iranian consciousness to the “otherness” of the modern West. It requires from the “Iranian intellectual a willingness to risk its political and intellectual attitudes and to plunge headlong into a transformative process instead of being in full position of imitation or ideological rejection of modernity. In this cross-cultural dialogue, modernity is no more reduced to a status of a simple technical and instrumental object or rejected as a dangerous enemy of the Iranian identity. Maybe for the first time, since Iran's encounter with the West, modernity is finally considered as a process which could provide us lessons for the affirmation of our own identity without having fears of recognizing the heritage of modern times as ours. In helping to maintain this dialogical exchange with modernity, the new generation of Iranian intellectuals frees itself from the intellectual blackmail of “being for or against the West”. At a close look, things become more complex and modernity is no more considered as a “package deal”, but as a destiny that invites us to face up the questions of our time. The question of globalized modernity and its debate with the concept of Iranian traditions has become the central question of Iranian intellectuals thirty years after the Iranian revolution. Also, the moral crisis due to the Islamic Revolution and the problems faced by a society confronting a theocratic state has increased the attractiveness for the idea of secular democracy among the new generation of Iranian intellectuals. It is true to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not achieved a relative well-functioning transition to the process of democratization and does not seem to be deepening or advancing whatever democratic progress. But there is a wide gulf today in Iran between the action of the political elites and the will of the post-revolutionary intellectuals. Unlike Latin America, where civil society is used overwhelmingly to designate popular social movements and the organizations of the excluded and the poor, Iranian civil society is of a great resemblance to that of the East and Central Europe in the 1980s where the projects are strongly identified with the intellectual movements. As in Eastern Europe, the new generation of Iranian intellectuals has played an important role in the formation and the strengthening of the Iranian civil society. Actually, in the case of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals, the disillusion with the given boundaries of traditional politics and traditional religious thought and with the restrictions of ideological politics provoked interest in civil society as a means of rejuvenating Iranian public life and preparing the democratic transition thought in Iran. This was mainly accompanied by the collapse of the intellectual models that dominated post-Second World War understandings of politics and modernity. This collapse gave a new currency to the idea of democracy and democratization against ideology and ideologization of the tradition. The very notion of “ideology” has lost much of its coherence among the new generation of Iranian intellectuals and it has accompanied the crisis of political legitimacy in Iran. This crisis was felt in Iran as a vacuum that was left by the ontological and political failure of creeds such as Marxist-Leninism and Islamic Fundamentalism. This vacuum is filled today by the category of “civil society” which could serve as a conceptual and practical key to the democratic transition in Iran. The concept of civil society is used today in the literature of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals not only as an institutional package, but also mainly as a particular mode of thinking and a special mode of political conduct. As a matter of fact, the category of civil society has a true significance for the new generation of Iranian intellectuals both as a critical tool and as a regulative principle for the democratization in Iran. Taken at this level, the idea of civil society as it is discussed by the Iranian intellectuals today embodies the debate on Western modernity and raises the question about the significance of the historical experience of Western politics. The point is not here about the imitation of democratic practices and institutions, but about the possibility of identifying a common set of goals and purposes best described by the Iranian intellectuals by the idea of accountability and responsibility. The two concepts of “accountability” and “responsibility” can introduce a new complexity and sharpness to assessments of the difficulties facing the process of democratic transition in Iran, both in establishing preconditions and dealing with its consolidation. It is true that cultural globalization could lead to the empowerment of civil society in many countries including Iran and the new generation of Iranian intellectuals can influence the Iranian youth by helping them to understand how the world is changing. But the process of democratization is not fully dependent upon the progress of globalization, it depend on the idea of “globality” which is linked to the idea of “responsibility”. As we can see from their writings, Iranian intellectuals do not identify their role any more as that of engaging in ideological politics, but of expressing critical views concerning the antidemocratic and authoritarian aspects of Iranian political and social traditions. Today Iran is going through a cycle of erratic oscillations in which moments of democratic hope ( the 8 years of Khatami’s presidency) alternate with times of great despair ( the victory of Mahmood Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of June 2005) . Yet this erratic situation of uncertainty is accompanied by the absence of a romantic and dogmatic view of the Iranian intellectual as an avant-garde guardian of ideologies.  The shock of the revolution and the reevaluation of political ideals have been part of a learning process that has generated a collective sense of responsibility among the post-revolutionary intellectuals in Iran and led them to opt for cultural dissent rather than ideological politics. Thirty eight years after the Revolution, the distinctive contribution of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals to the Iranian democratic debate is not how to choose between morality and politics in a country where dogmatism and confusion cover the voices of common sense and decency, but how to forge a politics of responsibility in the in the absence of which democracy would become a void concept In other words, for the new generation of Iranian intellectuals the revolution of yesterday has become the dissent of today.

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